Anxiety is Often Completely Irrational

Anxiety is often irrational but the fact that it does not always readily make sense does not stop it from rearing its ugly head.

Sometimes all it takes is something going badly once.  Every single time I’m in a similar situation afterwards, my anxiety is heightened and part of me fears that something bad will inevitably occur again.  Other times, I can have something bad occur repeatedly and nothing is ever triggered.  Each new time something bad happens again, I find myself honestly surprised at the outcome.

There’s no rhyme or reason to which will occur.  It is not based on the severity of the bad result.  It is not based on how pivotal the event was to my life.  Though I have struggled for years to understand my anxiety and pinpoint what causes it, I have not been able to discern any common factors to make it easier to predict my anxiety in the future.

A recent example of how my anxiety presents itself occurred a couple weeks ago. While preparing to shave my legs in the shower, I found a tick on my leg just below my kneecap.  Thankfully, he didn’t appear to have been there for long. I was able to get him out fairly quickly and easily.  There have been no rashes or bullseye rings around the site since then to warn of conditions such as Lyme disease.  All in all, I was pretty lucky. The whole situation was resolved quickly and without further or lasting complications.

This was my first experience finding a tick on myself in my lifetime.  It obviously was an isolated occurrence, unlikely to be repeated again any time soon.  I don’t spend a lot of time in wooded areas or anything where I’d be likely to pick up another tick.  Yet every time I have stepped in the shower since then, my anxiety easily goes up two points.

Whenever I step into the shower now my heart starts to race.  Though I begin an inner monologue telling myself that I am just being silly and paranoid, I can feel my chest start to tighten.  I stand under the stream of water, close my eyes and practice my conscious breathing techniques trying to calm myself back down.  I struggle to fight the urge to scour every inch of my skin again and again looking for other ticks.

I know it is irrational.  I know my anxiety in this situation makes no sense.  I know that, logically, I am highly unlikely to find another tick even upon a thorough inspection.  I know it was an isolated incident.  But logic plays no part in how my mind and my body begin to react in these situations.

I don’t even know if my anxiety in this particular situation will fade somewhat over time or if it will continue to grow.  Sometimes my situational anxiety will dull somewhat over the course of time.  Other times, however, it remains consistent or even grows and expands upon itself, merging with other anxieties over time.  Again, I have never been able to find any rhyme, reason or pattern to how my anxiety presents itself.  There’s no way to predict what lies ahead.

All I know is that, thanks to one random, errant tick, I have become increasingly apprehensive about taking my showers over the last couple weeks.  And I know that as much as I try to be rational and reason with myself, I cannot rationalize with my anxiety.  It comes and goes as it pleases, always leaving a mess in its wake.

That has always been one of my biggest issues with explaining my anxiety to other people.  Everyone always attempts to apply logic to the situation to “help me see how ridiculous my anxiety is”.  You cannot rationalize the irrational.

Though sometimes portions of my anxiety will eventually fade over time, I have carried others with me for decades.  A good portion of my anxiety revolves around never truly feeling safe.  In this aspect, it has merged with my PTSD because in my head security equates to safety.  Due in a large part to the abuses of my past, I have noticed that I subconsciously react to my anxiety over not feeling safe in many ways. For example, I always leave my shower curtain somewhat ajar so I can see the pathway directly to the door.  I often find myself jumpy and apprehensive when seated with my back to doorways because I carry within myself an ever-present fear of someone approaching me unaware.  I check locks repeatedly, especially before going to bed, because I cannot  relax, get comfortable or fall asleep if I am even the slightest bit anxious about my safety.

I have not experienced anything in the scope of sexual abuse or physical abuse since I was a child that would warrant such anxiety.  There is no rational explanation for why I need to have a clear view of the door from my shower or why I must watch the pathways to my location like a hawk.  It has been decades since I have had anything happen and I am no longer that little child who cannot fend for herself.  But my body and mind will not accept that reality as fact.  To this day, whenever I am presented with certain situations, my anxiety is automatically heightened.  It doesn’t matter that it is irrational.  It doesn’t matter that I can even clearly see that the situation is irrational and call myself on it.  My mind and body still react as if there is something to fear.

I understand that others mean well when they try to reassure me that there really is nothing to worry about or make comments about my overreacting.  I’m aware of that fact myself.  But they might as well be telling me the sky is blue because I can see that, as well, yet I have as little control over that as I do over my anxiety.  There is nothing anyone else could say to me that I have not said to myself a hundred times over.  I know somewhere within myself that it is irrational.  But that does not stop my mind and my body from reacting as if it was the most rational thing in the world.

I don’t need anyone else to tell me that my anxiety is often irrational.  Trust me, I have those bases well covered.  What I need more than anything is compassion and understanding, along with acknowledgement that I am doing my best to use everything I possess in my mental wellness toolbox to soothe myself and bring myself back down out of a panic.  I know my anxiety is often irrational.  Please believe my when I say I am not doing it intentionally to make my own life or anyone else’s harder.  It is a mental illness.  I have virtually no control over how my mind and body react in certain situations.  The last thing I need is judgment or lectures about how I just need to be more rational and calm down.  Because let’s face it – You cannot reason with something that is unreasonable.  You cannot rationalize the irrational.  All the common sense in the world will not negate anxiety.  It is a medical condition.

Anxiety & Jumping to Conclusions

When someone suffers from an anxiety disorder, our minds are always in overdrive, racing at top speeds trying to figure everything out. For each and every problem that presents itself, our brains reason out hundreds of possible reasons why, usually settling on the worst possible scenario or the one that bears the most personal responsibility. We see ourselves as broken and flawed so we naturally assume the fault ultimately must always rest with us.
When a friend does not acknowledge our messages or respond back right away, our mind races to decipher what we must have done to upset them without realizing it. We ponder whether we’ve been such awful friends, caught up within our own misery and personal problems, that we must have devalued their friendship, damaging it irreparably, causing them to give up on us and walk away. Somehow, the worst possible probability always seems more likely to us than the sheer possibility that they might just be busy, distracted by their own lives at the moment.
When our boyfriends or girlfriends, husbands or wives do not respond to us with absolute elation or passion, we start to wonder whether they are falling out of love with us. We dwell over how much of a handful we have always been in the relationship, whether real or imaginary. We wonder whether they’ve stumbled onto someone else they mesh with better and we honestly could not blame them if it were to happen because we know how horrible we can be. No matter how much or how often they tell us they love us and they cannot imagine their lives without us, our anxiety leaves us with an overwhelming sense of insecurity that convinces us that anyone else in the world would be a better choice than we are for them.
If something goes wrong at school or at work, we automatically assume we must be to blame and seek out how we must be ultimately responsible. Even if we know for a fact we had nothing to do with a situation happening, we look for areas where our intervention may have prevented the mishap and blame ourselves for our inaction. We feel as if we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, but either way, we’re still to blame.
If something breaks or stops working, we trace back to our last time using it, considering every irresponsible action we have done that may have contributed to its demise. Somewhere in our heads, we rationalize that forgetting to shut off a machine when we were done using it once 6 months ago must have ultimately caused a chain reaction that led to its deterioration and destruction. It doesn’t matter if a dozen other people have each done a dozen different things since then to contribute to the situation at hand. In our minds, our mistakes are so glaringly horrendous that we cannot fathom any other explanation being more likely. It doesn’t matter if an item was past its prime or threadbare and past due to be replaced. Our anxiety tells us it would still be usable if not for us.
We internalize everything. We assume that the chaos within ourselves is constantly leaking out into the world around us, seeping into everything we come in contact with, making everything ultimately worse. Our minds race straight for the absolute worst possible scenario, making a pit stop at every other negative possibility along the way. Our anxiety tends to blind us to the positive possibilities or even to the simple likelihood of coincidences or happenstance. It discards any randomness, always looking for a definitive answer and cause. There must ALWAYS be a reason why, must ALWAYS be someone to blame, and our minds have designated us to be the sacrificial lamb.
We do not do this intentionally. It isn’t that we’re just being a Negative Nancy, refusing to listen to reason or see the positive side of things. When we blame ourselves, we are not having a pity party, expecting others to feel bad for us, too.  We genuinely feel responsible whenever anything goes wrong.  Part of having an anxiety disorder is having a brain that is constantly, consistently, working in overdrive, looking to connect and explain everything around us, whether those connections are real or imaginary. Even if those links seem ludicrous to others looking in, when our minds make those connections, they feel genuine to us. Our brains are often on autopilot, with us just along for the ride. Whenever the rational side of our mind tries to speak up, speak out, to even suggest we might be overreacting or making something out of nothing, that voice is drowned out by a hundred other voices, a thousand other possibilities, of ways and reasons that we might be, must be, wrong.
If we have ever had a friend in the past who have distanced themselves because they felt we were too much of a handful, part of us assume other friends will follow suit and discard us, as well. If we’ve ever had a partner fall out of love with us or cheat with someone else, part of us braces ourselves for the next time it will happen, leaving us abandoned and alone. Because of this, we have trouble letting people in, trouble trusting others and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.  We are terrified of being hurt, of putting ourselves in that position again.  As much as part of us knows that our current friends and partners are not those people who hurt us in our past, our brains keep pushing to link everything together, to make connections even where none truly exist. Even worse, when we are faced with pain or abandonment from others, we still question ourselves, looking to take personal responsibility for the choices and actions of everyone else.
Perhaps even worse than the initial blame game we play with ourselves is the way our minds will keep building and compounding our theories upon themselves, escalating them to unfathomable proportions. We build these fragile houses of cards in our minds, adding new card after card until we’ve created a precarious tower of self-loathing and blame. We tear into ourselves with a never-ending monologue that continuously harps that if we had just tried harder, just been better, not been so broken, been more responsible, none of would have happened. Our minds taunt us, telling us we should have known better than to even try, reminding us that everything we do, everything else we try, will fail, too, in time. We tell ourselves the lie that we are destined to be alone, that sooner or later everyone always leaves, then push everyone away, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We allow our anxiety to convince us that failure and loneliness is an inevitable part of our lives and that we don’t deserve any better. We sincerely believe that it’s just what we do, just how our lives go, that you cannot fight the inevitable.
Even if it eventually comes to light that we were not to blame, even if the situation had a simple explanation that has nothing to do with us, it does not quell our anxiety. Instead, we tell ourselves, “it might not have been us THIS TIME..” as we begin to mentally brace ourselves for the next time we actually will be at fault. We chalk it up to sheer luck and we don’t see ourselves as ever truly lucky so we consider it a rare free pass, unlikely to ever happen again.
I often catch myself travelling down that anxiety-ridden path, needlessly panicking before I even know all the facts. I find myself looking to rest all the blame on myself even before I fully understand the situation or its underlying cause. I often find myself taking any distance from family and friends personally, without considering that their lives are busy, too and that life happens to us all.  I feel like I have to be ever-vigilant, ever self-aware, so I have even the slightest chance to rationalize with myself before the inevitable self-blame-game begins. Even then, it is a struggle within myself because my body automatically reacts to the anxiety festering in my mind. Even if the logical part of my brain is able to determine I am not at fault, there’s always that kernel of doubt bouncing around in my head, asking “..but how do you know for sure?”
Years ago, I had a friend that used to jokingly tell me, “Beth.. get off the cross. We need the wood”. It’s a sentiment I’ve come to relate heavily to my own anxiety. After all, I have been needlessly carrying the burden, real or imaginary, of everything going on around me for my entire life. I am slowly learning to differentiate between the rational and irrational, taking ownership of my own actions and decisions without carrying the weight of the rest of the world on my shoulders. While I cannot will away my anxiety disorder with mind over matter, being able to catch myself and separate what is probable from what is unlikely is a good start.  I may have to live with this anxiety monster on my back, but I don’t need to keep feeding it.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/22/18.

Trying to Help Others Understand Anxiety

Whenever I start to explain that part of my mental illness diagnosis includes severe anxiety, I always receive confused looks.  They are usually followed by judgmental comments about how “everyone has problems and stress in their lives”, telling me that I need to “learn to cope and work through it all”.  I get told that I “shouldn’t let every little thing get to me” and that I’d be so much happier if I “stopped stressing over everything and just mellowed out”.

I have others that have gone so far as to make accusations about whether my anxiety is even real or just in my head.  They’ll question how I could claim I’m “too anxious” to go somewhere to fill out paperwork yet am “perfectly comfortable attending things like farmer’s markets or street fairs”.  I’ve tried to explain that it isn’t the same thing.  I don’t have social anxiety.  People and crowds are not my issue.  My anxiety is situational and builds upon itself, making it harder to function in some situations than others.

I’ve tried to explain my anxiety again and again until I was blue in the face, yet I’ve been met with blank stares or judgments more often than not.  I finally sat down and made an overly simplified chart, similar to the pain level chart used in doctor’s offices,  in hope that it might be more  relatable and help others understand.

anxietychart

The average happy and well-balanced person starts an average day with 0 anxiety.  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, their rent and car payments have been paid, their family is healthy and happy.  Life is good.

Little daily stresses might raise things to a 1 or a 2, but it’s nothing they can’t handle.  Every now and then, there’s a 3, 4 or 5.  Life happens.  It isn’t always easy but it’s nothing that can’t be smoothed out and they know it won’t be long until they’re back down to a 1 or two again, or even enjoying one of those blessed days with 0 anxiety.

People struggling with an anxiety diagnosis never see a 1 or a 2, let alone a day with 0 anxiety.  Their good days start around a 3, their average days around a 4 or 5.  It isn’t even that any major crisis may be going on in their lives causing their heightened anxiety.  It is that their body and their mind are reacting and responding as if it was.  And, being already frazzled, every little added thing that goes wrong just adds to their anxiety until inside their heads they are in a complete panic, running around with arms flailing, screaming that the sky is falling, Chicken Little-style.  Or even worse, they just wrap themselves in a blanket and shut down completely.

Now to get back to explaining the situational anxiety I mentioned earlier.  High stress situations already start off at a higher anxiety level than normal for us because our minds are already considering every single thing that could go wrong.  Every time there is a bump in the road and things don’t work out like they should, it adds more anxiety to the pile for next time.  All it takes is a couple times where things go wrong before our bodies and minds start to panic when it comes to anything associated with that person, place or thing.

Managing our anxiety is not as simple as taking a deep breath, learning to think positive or not sweating the small stuff.  We are not intentionally causing our anxiety.  Our anxiety fires off somewhere in our subconscious.  We have no control over it.  Our mind starts sending out warnings and our body responds.  We find ourselves on edge, our chests tightened, our thoughts muddled, our mouths dry, our palms sweaty.  There are times we’re not even sure what we are anxious about, only that the anxiety is there.

Once our anxiety has reached a certain level, we begin to have anxiety attacks.  Our body goes into auto-pilot in a full blown panic.  Anxiety attacks present themselves differently for different people, but in every case it is our body’s way of saying that it cannot take any more.  Beyond the anxiety attack is the shut down, that numbness where you’re mentally, emotionally and physically too exhausted to think or function.  I have not included a level 10 anxiety level because, though I have experienced many anxiety attacks and shut downs, I have never personally experienced anything beyond that.  I do imagine there is something worse, though I am not sure what could possibly be worse than everything I have already been enduring.

That is not to say that conscious breathing exercises, meditation or other such exercises do not help.  They can help pull us back into a state of self-awareness that can stave off a full blown anxiety attack.  But they are not a panacea.  They will not magically cure an anxiety disorder, just facilitate in pulling some people some times back into the here and now.

That is because an anxiety disorder is a mental illness.  It is not something we are doing to ourselves because we are easily panicked or excitable.  It is not something we’ve made up in our heads.  Much like a diabetic can help regulate their highs and lows by eating at regular times and monitoring their sugar intake, someone with an anxiety disorder can use tools such as conscious breathing to help moderate their anxiety.  But getting exercise or not eating that candy bar won’t cure diabetes any more than meditation will cure anxiety.  It is our medical diagnosis.

I know the chart I made is extremely simplified – anyone suffering with anxiety can testify that it is so much worse, but I wanted to give examples that the average person could relate to, as well as providing a build up they might be able to imagine in their own lives.

I know that it can be hard for those who have never experienced a mental illness such as anxiety to truly understand what we are going through.  Please try to keep in mind, though, that it is not something we are intentionally doing to make our lives, or yours, harder.  Our brains are always reacting and responding to the world around us at a heightened state.  We have no control over it and are trying our best to manage our anxiety to the best of our ability.  But it is a medical diagnosis that needs treatment.  It is not something we can magically cure on our own.

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Checking Doors

Explaining How Anxiety Rules my Life

 

When I leave the house, I have to always pull on the door knob to make sure the door is closed and locked.  Likewise, when I come home, I make sure the door is securely closed and locked before walking away.  If I am heading out and leaving my children home alone, I will check twice.  It isn’t that I fear for the safety of my two large teenage boys who are fully capable of taking care of themselves; I just want to assure myself they’re locked safely inside.  After returning my sugar gliders to their cage, I must always tug at their doors to assure myself that they’re properly latched.  I am admittedly obsessed with whether doors have been properly secured.  This isn’t an occasional occurrence.  It happens EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  If I am not the last one at the door, I will ask apprehensively if they’re SURE the door is closed and locked.  If not secure in their response, I will run back and check again for my own peace of mind.  My ex used to tease me about having OCD.  For years, I tried unsuccessfully to help him understand that my actions were not driven by OCD.  They were one of many ways that my anxiety disorder presented itself.

Growing up, my mother did not believe children were entitled to locks on their bedroom doors.  If we were getting changed, doors could be temporarily shut; However, doors must be reopened immediately afterwards because children were not entitled to privacy.  Our bedrooms did not have sturdy wooden doors.  We had flimsy accordion-style doors that could be easily slid open and closed or broken through without much effort.  It was this lack of security and safety that led to a childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse.  My bedroom was never a safe haven from beatings or sexual assaults.  Anyone could come in through doors that could not lock and come in, they did.

I check doorknobs and locks because locks mean safety in my mind.  I need to know my children are safe, my pets are safe, that my life is safely locked away behind a secure door.  I know it is not rational.  I know that a locked door cannot protect anyone or anything from all the evils of the world, but I cannot control that apprehension from rising every time I question whether everything has been properly closed.  For years, I had no control and no safety.  Making sure doors have been properly latched and locked is one way I have of regaining control of my life and the safety of those I love.

My anxiety extends beyond locked doors.  It rears its head in many ways.  Mental illness runs in my family.  I am deathly afraid that my children might be suffering in silence so I am forever checking in, wanting to make sure they’re okay and they know I’m here to listen if they need to talk.  Relationships are difficult for me because I’ve been cheated on, abandoned and discarded so many times that I live in constant fear of loss and betrayal.  It isn’t that I do not want to trust those I love.  Whenever things don’t go completely according to plan, my mind searches for a reason and usually lands on the worst case scenario.  I need reassurance that I’m loved and not forgotten because I’m terrified of being in that position again.  I am forever anxious about money and bills because I’ve been homeless before.  I am petrified of doctors because I’ve seen people I love eaten alive by illnesses, dying in hospice not even remembering my name.  One of my greatest fears is that something will happen to my children; I am forever reminding them to be careful and safe.  Fears with a hundred different faces run through my head on any given day.

It is a constant battle to keep my anxiety in check.  When I can maintain even the slightest control, it gives me peace of mind, even if it means obsessively checking locks.  I know there are so many things in life I cannot control.  That fact keeps me up at night.  I cannot tell you the last night I slept peacefully because I’m not sure I ever have.  The worst, though, is when one of my fears becomes even partially realized.  When I found a lump on the side of my breast a few years ago, I had a complete breakdown because I could not go through cancer eating me alive like it had my father; It turned out to be benign but my anxiety convinced me I was dying each and every moment of every day until those results came back.  Each and every time my ex would cheat, my anxiety would charge in, full force, reaffirming my fears of rejection and abandonment.  When fears are fully realized, anxiety attacks ensue.

It is impossible to fully explain anxiety attacks to someone who has never had one.  My chest tightens like a heavy weight has been placed on it and I cannot breathe.  My body shakes.  My heart pounds fiercely and wildly, as if it might burst from my chest.  My mind races in panic mode.  My stomach tightens into knots and I have to throw up.  I cannot find the words to express myself, nor can I control my mouth to speak them.  I want to scream, cry, tear the world apart and shrink into a ball and disappear all at once.  My head is everywhere and nowhere.  I have no control.  I am completely and utterly terrified, like a deer caught in the headlights, and I cannot move, cannot get it to stop, cannot stop crying.  At most, I might mutter no more, no mas, pleading with myself to make it stop, to give me back control.  At best, I hyperventilate and pass out.

I’ve tried and failed many times over the years to help others understand my anxiety; Again and again, I’ve heard critical remarks from others about how my anxiety is completely irrational.  As if delivering some hysterical punch line, I always want to laugh and exclaim “Exactly!”  Anxiety is never rational.  It NEVER makes sense.  Anxiety leaks from past traumas and bleeds into every aspect of life.  It digs at us like an itch we can’t scratch, gnaws at us so fiercely that it cannot be ignored.  When anxiety puts a thought into our head, it becomes an obsession.  When fears become realized, there’s no way to stave off breakdowns or anxiety attacks.  I control my anxiety to the best of my ability, repeatedly doing things like checking doors to give myself some peace of mind because, while I know I cannot control everything in life, I need to feel I have even the slightest control over my anxiety disorder and my life.

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Republished on EmpowHER on 8/23/16.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 8/26/16.